Thoughts on Snapchat and Technological Advancement

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(Note: The following quotes are all from the book “Thank You for Being Late” written by Thomas L. Friedman)

Last week I picked up the book “Thank You for Being Late” (a must read). I’ve never read something that so clearly explains the technological advancements we’re experiencing.

One of the main themes of the book is Moore’s Law.

For those of you unfamiliar with Moore’s Law, it states that roughly every two years the processing power of computers will double. This doubling of processing power is also accompanied with a reduction in price.

It’s extremely difficult for our human minds to conceptualize this sort of exponential growth.

Take the famous legend of the king who rewarded the man who invented chess:

“The inventor of chess said that all he wanted was enough rice to feed his family. The king said, “Of course, it shall be done. How much of rice would you like?” The man asked the king to simply place a single grain of rice on the first square of a chessboard, then two on the next, then four on the next, with each subsequent square receiving twice as many as the previous one. The king agreed without realizing that sixty-three instances of doubling yields a fantastically big number: something like eighteen quintillion grains of rice.”

It’s argued that Moore’s Law has now entered “the second half of the chessboard”.

When Intel’s CEO Brian Krzanich tries to explain the implications of Moore’s Law he uses this example:

“If you took Intel’s first generation microchip from 1971, the 4004, and the latest chip on the market today, the sixth-generation Intel Core processor, you will see that Intel’s latest chip offers 3,500 times more performance, is 90,000 times more energy efficient, and is about 60,000 times lower in cost.”

That statement is probably a lot more impressive if you know a thing or two about computers. To make the point clearer, Intel engineers did a rough calculation of what would happen to a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle if it improved at the same rate as Intel’s chips did under Moore’s Law.

This is what you would get:

“That Beetle would be able to go about three hundred thousand miles per hour. It would get two million miles per gallon of gas, and it would cost four cents!”
mind… blown

If that doesn’t blow your mind, I don’t know what will.

The computational speed of microchips isn’t the only thing that has been experiencing this exponential improvement. All the other components of a computer are experiencing it too.

Every computing device today has five basic components: (1) the integrated circuits that do the computing; (2) the memory units that store and retrieve information; (3) the networking systems that enable communications within and across computers; (4) the software applications that enable different computers to perform myriad tasks individually and collectively; (5) and sensors — cameras and other miniature devices that detect movement, language, light, heat, moisture, and sound and transform any of them into digitized data.

Since this article is about Snapchat (I’ll get to that later), let’s talk about the camera and its accompanying software.

To paint a picture of how much better things have gotten, Friedman tells a story that was told to him by Tom Wujec, a fellow at Autodesk and expert in 3-D design, engineering, and entertainment software.

In 1995, Tom Wujec was a creative director of the Royal Ontario Museum. The last project he worked on was a dinosaur model called Maisaura. Tom and his team were in charge of bringing the dinosaur to life. The goal was to have a digital model of Maisaura so that museum visitors would be able to press buttons on the exhibit panel and watch the dinosaur move and act in the way paleontologist thought it would.

From start to finish, the project took two years and cost more than $500,000.

In 2015 (roughly 20 years later), Tom was at a cocktail party at the same museum and saw that the original bronze cast model of Maisaura was on display. Curious to see what the digital modeling process would be like with modern tools, he walked over to the sculpture and began taking pictures.

“So, on a Friday night, with a glass of wine in my hand, I took out my iPhone and walked around the model, took twenty or so photographs over maybe ninety seconds, and uploaded them to a free cloud app our company produces called 123D Catch. Four minutes later, it returned this amazing, accurate, animatable, photorealistic digital 3-D model — better than the one we produced twenty years ago. That night, I saw how a half-million dollars of hardware and software and months and months of hard, very technical, specialized work could be largely replaced by an app at a cocktail party with a glass of wine in one hand and a smartphone in the other.”
mind blown x2

Mind blowing. What took a team of experts $500,000 and two years was replicated in 4 minutes, all while sipping on a cocktail.

In 20 years something complex and expensive was turned into something trivial.

Now, this brings us to Snapchat, an App launched in 2011 that reportedly has 150 million daily active users and 301 million monthly active users.

I remember I was in high school when I first heard about it, and admittedly I thought it was kind of stupid. Why would I send someone a random picture of something? If it was really that cool I could just text it to them.

It’s clear that I initially missed the point. Seeing that the cool kids all had downloaded Snapchat, I reluctantly decided to give it a try.

Upon downloading and playing around with the App, I finally got it. The fun was in being able to manipulate and edit the photos you were sharing.

Drake album cover by my good friend David

It’s easy to forget how crude and basic the original functionality of Snapchat was. Conversely, it’s just as easy to not fully appreciate or notice how complex and advanced its current functionalities are.

My walk to the gym usually takes around 10–15 minutes (depending on how fast I walk). Usually on my walk I’ll be listening to music or a podcast, but today was different. I remember that my good friend David (yes, the David pictured above) had recently shown me that you can crop and post faces on Snapchat. I’m obsessed with the character Borat, and thought it would be fun to paste his head onto my body.

Great Success!!!!

I was shocked how easy it was. The whole process took me under 10 seconds.

I remember being back in my grade 9 ICT class, playing around in photoshop and struggling to do the exact same thing.

Think about all the features and functionalities Snapchat currently has. In a few seconds, you can turn yourself into a bunny, face swap, or recreate Cristiano Ronaldo’s famous celebration.

GOOOOAAALLL !!!!!!

Snapchat allows you to edit videos and photos with only an iPhone (a device that had no video capability upon it’s original release) and a few gestures with your finger. These sort of capabilities were once reserved for professionals who had access to expensive software.

The point I’m trying to make is twofold:

  1. People have access (via Snapchat) to sophisticated, free and easy to use photo/video editing tools. Tools that were once expensive and hard to use.
  2. These tools seem normal to most of us. Turn my face into some strange looking alien and alter my voice with a click of a button? What’s so crazy about that? Easy!

To go back to the Moore’s Law and the “second half of the chessboard”, I’d like to make the following 2 predictions:

  1. Technology will continue to advance exponentially, and more people will have access to previously expensive and complex tools (obvious).
  2. People will interact with these technologies in a natural and intuitive way. These new capabilities will feel increasingly normal (not so obvious).

These two predictions speak to both product design and how humans learn to interact with technology and their environment. Two subjects I plan on exploring and writing about further.


This article was highly influenced by Thomas L. Friedman’s new book “Thank You for Being Late”. I highly encourage you to grab a copy.

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(Note: This post is merely a reflection of what goes on in my weird little head)🤓

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